As they move into their second year of A-levels, George and Marta decide that they really want to study Electronic Systems Engineering. They begin looking around for universities in England that offer degrees in this field of study, eventually narrowing their choice down to three. Both apply to all of them, and are then thrilled to be accepted to study at their first choice.
Three years later, George comes out with a 2:1, along with debts of over £30,000. Marta, on the other hand, comes out with a 2:1, not a penny of debt, and five years of work experience at a major software design company. Question: which one is in the more enviable position?
Since the Government first announced the introduction of degree apprenticeships, take up amongst universities has been distinctly lukewarm. True, there are currently only 15 areas of study in which they are available, but even so the number of universities offering them is still very low (currently around 30), and the number of places available is just 1,500 or so out of a total of nearly 500,000 university places.
Should universities be more interested? If so why? After all, if it makes no difference financially whether or not they include degree apprenticeships in their course portfolio, why should they bother? What are the incentives? Actually, there are a number of reasons, and in the rest of this piece we will look briefly at each of them.
As suggested above, a person coming out of university with a degree apprenticeship, rather than a traditional degree, is already better off in a number of important ways, not just financially, but also by having five or six years of valuable work experience behind them, which they can add to their CV. It is no secret that employers are increasingly looking for evidence of work experience when deciding between candidates, and so it is clear that — all other things being equal — if faced with a choice between two candidates with the same qualification, the one with the experience of working for an employer for three or four years will have a clear advantage over the person who has no experience in that kind of job.
Although, for obvious reasons, no data is yet available on how degree apprenticeships will translate into employment after graduating, data on normal apprenticeships may give a good indication. According to a Department of Business, Innovation and Skills study from December 2014, 89% of apprentices and advanced apprentices that have completed their training are in either full or part-time employment, and 71% of these are with the same employer with whom they completed their apprenticeship.
The point is this: work experience and a good reference make a person objectively more employable, and so any university that is serious about improving the employability of their students will want to offer degree apprenticeships as a way of giving them a much greater opportunity of finding sustainable employment after graduating.
Widening participation and social mobility
Higher and degree apprenticeships widen access to skilled trades and professions, providing high level technical skills employers needed to improve productivity. Moreover, they offer people from different backgrounds and ages real opportunities to reach their potential via an equally valid career route to university. In the recently published Apprenticeships: Proposals for Funding From May 2017, businesses in England are being offered an extra £2,000 to employ teenagers, care leavers and those with special education needs as apprentices.
Students Voting With Their Feet
Both the issues explored above lead directly to a third reason as to why universities should be getting to grips with this issue. With students coming out of university with vast debts accrued, and no guarantee of good employment, young people are going to be looking far more carefully at their options. If an alternative exists whereby they can get the same qualification, but debt-free, and with work experience, many are bound to want to explore it further with their parents / carers and careers advisers.
In the illustration we began with, we assumed that both George and Marta had equal access to information on which degrees are available, but that they choose to do different types of degree. But what if the university that offers the degree apprenticeship can explicitly tell them which employer they will be working for, how much they will earn, and what it means at the end of the degree in terms of employability, and then they contrast this with the alternative of being saddled with debt and having no experience of working for an employer in that field? For an increasing number of young people, this is going to be a compelling argument, and so the university that offers degree apprenticeships will have a distinct advantage over those that don’t.
Although this may not yet be a massive issue, it undoubtedly will be in the coming years, and those “early adopter” universities that establish themselves early on as being providers of degree apprenticeships, and who use clever tactics to market and target them, may well find students voting with their feet to sign up with employers. Indeed, we are already seeing changes to employer behaviour with increased investment in apprenticeship programmes alongside school leaver and graduate programmes — Barclays being one example.
Beating the Competition
There is one final reason why universities should be “champing at the bit” to introduce degree apprenticeships. Given the reasons mentioned above — better employability, widening participation and increased student demand — there is an incentive there for every university to take advantage of this opportunity before their competitors do. Simply put, if your university doesn’t want to tap into the opportunities that degree apprenticeships offer, you can be sure that others will. And not just in the university sector. There are already a number of Further Education colleges that are looking to introduce them (for example, Blackpool and the Fylde College), and it is likely that some of the bigger independent training providers (for example, Kaplan) will also be seeking to deliver degree apprenticeships in due course.
If you find any or all of those reasons compelling, the next question to be asked is how to discern which degree apprenticeships to deliver and/or develop. Although currently the answer to this is limited by the number of areas in which they have been established, this will change over the next few years as those numbers increase and Phase 2 of the HEFCE Degree Apprenticeship Development Fund is launched. Universities who want to increase the employability of their students, respond to student demand, and stay ahead of their competitors will want to find answers to these questions.
To discuss how we can help your university take a strategic approach to degree apprenticeships, contact Dr. Jamie Mackay at firstname.lastname@example.org